Cabot makes big changes to help student success

by Stephanie Byrnes

The first day of high school is a monumental one. Every August, anxious high school freshmen stare at themselves in the mirror before that first school day, analyzing with a critical eye the carefully selected outfit that could determine their footing for the next four years.

Often times these “babies” on campus stand in such contrast to their senior counterparts that more and more schools nationwide are looking at ways to better service this unique group of students.

One Arkansas school district believes they have found a solution. In August 2014, the Cabot School District will open the doors to a new Freshmen Academy, an entire building segregated from the high school campus and dedicated solely to the needs of freshmen students.

“Ninth grade is a critical academic year for all students,” said Cabot’s Tanya Spillane, the district’s 5-9 curriculum coordinator. “The required credits earned during this year help to create the initial pathway to graduation.”

Spillane went on to say that the goal of this unusual approach to helping freshmen “is to create an environment where students can focus on the long-term goal of graduation while obtaining the skills necessary to become more successful high school students. Ultimately, if students obtain the required credits in a timely manner, they will be more apt to graduate on time.”

Only a handful of districts in the state have similar facilities, but with recent studies showing a dip in high school graduation rates nationally, schools are scrambling to find the best way to help more students walk across the stage to complete their senior year. Cabot believes that tackling this problem should start with ninth-grade students who face the pressure of graduation credits and grade point averages for the first time.

Essentially, the Academy will do more than simply remove freshmen students from a large campus and absolve the issue of “small fish in a big pond;” it will also provide students with a more personal support system through smaller learning communities. These communities monitor student progress more closely, intervening early on and supporting students who display signs of slipping through the cracks.

“Students at this age are caught between childhood and adulthood,” said Cabot educator Rachel Horn. They pursue more independence and responsibility, but Horn thinks they “may be lacking in support or background knowledge to make effective decisions on their own. Our smaller learning communities will provide this opportunity for our students.”

The Freshmen Academy will not limit opportunities for students, though, simply because it is housed on a separate campus than the high school. “The students will continue to have full programming opportunities at the new building,” Spillane said. “This is to include athletics, band, forensics, art, computer applications and more. Essentially, the students will have multiple opportunities to succeed.”

Perhaps the most influential need for this academy, according to Cabot freshmen teacher Matt Sheets, is that “this is an age group of students where a strong desire to fit in can be ranked higher in priority than academics because of the varying age groups of the other students within a typical high school setting.”

Sheets, along with other Cabot educators, says he hopes that by providing a small, more personal guidance system, students can “develop social and academic skills without the fear of fitting in.”

There’s no doubt that come August 2014, Cabot freshmen students will still feel those first-day jitters before filling the halls of the Freshmen Academy for the first time. But with the many safety nets Cabot educators are putting in place to encourage them, at least they will be less likely to face the disappointment of never wearing a cap and gown.